Tomlin vs. Shula: Comparing Coaching Legacies

By Stephen Juza

May 15th, 2024

Last month, we looked at Andy Reid's chances at breaking the career wins record with his new contract extension. While the Chiefs under Reid have been the class of the NFL, his age may be the most significant barrier to achieving the record. Reid would have to coach into his 70s, an age that most coaches have long since hung up the whistle. If it’s not Reid, and assuming Bill Belichick is finished coaching, which coach stands the next chance at breaking Don Shula's record?

Enter Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin.

For those looking to take a break from the offseason football news, why not explore the vibrant world of Pennsylvania online casinos? Discover top-rated gaming experiences and exclusive bonuses by checking out reviews of PA online casinos at BonusFinder.

Tomlin is the only active coach under 60 in the Top 50 for career wins. For a coach to break the record, they have to get their start at an early age. Tomlin was hired as the Steelers head coach at the relatively young age of 35, and has been a consistent winner from Day 1. Hired to fill the large shoes left behind by retired Steelers coach Bill Cowher, he was an immediate success. In only his second season, he won his first Super Bowl, and two years later he led the team to a second appearance.

He has maintained the level of success throughout his tenure in Pennsylvania. He has never led his team to a losing record, and in his seventeen seasons, he has more double-digit wins seasons than single-digit win seasons. In fact, he has accumulated wins at a rate almost identical to Shula's during his record-setting career.

He has also won games at a higher rate than almost any other coach. His 63% win percentage is good for sixth highest among the Top-20 winningest coaches in NFL history. However, while 63% is fantastic on the career charts, it consistently falls below any point in Shula’s career.

While they have accumulated wins at a similar pace, Tomlin has benefited from the elongated NFL season to keep up with Shula. While Shula’s career win percentage peaked in the high 70s, Tomlin has consistently been in the mid-60s, which will require him to continue coaching for a very long time. Projected trends indicate he would break the record in his 32nd season based on his win percentage.

However, the team has struggled the last five seasons. Since the 2019 season, the Steelers have averaged just under ten wins a season, with zero playoff victories. A lack of offensive firepower has been a strong contributor toward that. Before 2019, the team had a bevy of offensive stars. Future hall of famers such as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and offensive lineman Alan Faneca, first-team All-Pros such as Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, and Maurkice Pouncey, and countless other Pro Bowlers.

Since 2019? They have not had a single offensive player named to the first team All-Pro and only a few offensive players have been named to the Pro Bowl. The consistent 9-10 win seasons have been powered by the defense, led by T.J Watt, Cameron Heyward and Minkah Fitzpatrick. But the defensive success hasn’t been enough. While the Steelers had top-10 defenses in four of the last five seasons, the average offensive rank during this time was 21st. While the offense has lagged in performance, the team is clearly committed to righting the ship. Four of the first five picks in last month’s NFL draft went to the offense.

Tomlin will have to reverse this trend to have any shot at the career wins record. Continuing the team record from the last five seasons would mean he needs to coach until his 33rd season. Averaging nine wins a season would push the record out to the 35th season. In short, longer than virtually any head coach ever - only three coaches have ever coached 30+ seasons as a head coach (Shula, George Halas, and Curly Lambeau).

Tomlin would have more to worry about than the wins record if his team only averaged 9 wins a season for the next fifteen years. It’s likely that he would be fired long before that. But short of the Steelers finding the next generational quarterback to lead the team the next fifteen years, it’s likely Shula will retain the record for a very, very long time.

Follow us on Twitter: